Deanna Thomas fills her belly in the Northern Quarter's under belly
AMIDST all the shouty dirty food joints, beardy hipster mixologists and tattooed brewers in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, there’s an undercurrent of old cafés serving some of the best food in the city. We’re not talking about cafés knocking out curled up sarnies or greasy fry-ups, we mean boltholes where you can enjoy slow-cooked aromatic stews and properly prepared creations of an Asian persuasion for around a fiver.
Other major UK cities have similar pockets of low price Asian daytime diners, but it seems that the famous rice'n'three institution is uniquely Mancunian. The traditional curry caff sprang up from a need to feed the hundreds of local garment industry workers who began arriving from the Indian sub-continent. Word soon caught on.
For those who haven’t experienced rice'n'three, it’s a spoonful of rice topped with a scoop each of three curries chosen from a selection of six or so. Meat-based curries are slightly more expensive than vegetarian curries, but service is designed to be a quick process, so mixing and matching to suit is straightforward. You’re not obliged to have three curries, you can have more or less. Food is served canteen-style with customers lining up to choose from that day’s specials before adding some garnish (there’s usually bowls of chopped onions, raw green chillies, shredded ginger and chopped coriander by the till) and finding some space to eat it. Each caff has a daily-changing set menu and many curry caff enthusiasts even have their favourite day of the week.
There has been little change over the last three decades or so. A few of the cafés have relocated (Marharba), some have sadly shut down (such as Usman and Shalimar - which was generally believed to be the best), some have changed name (Aladdin), but a handful remain and some have even had a little spruce up. They are basic and low-budget with plastic seating and formica tables but that’s their appeal.
Expect a delicious, no-frills feed of steaming home-style curries for around a fiver (you’ll never look at a Meal Deal in the same way again). All of these caffs also serve kebabs of marinated meats on skewers as an alternative to rice and three, but in the twenty or so years we’ve been frequenting these establishments, we’ve never got that far. All of them do homemade chapatti or naan breads too if you feel the need. There’s usually a fridge full of soft drinks (mostly Coke, 7UP and various Rubicon) as well as jugs of tap water. You can usually choose to sit in or take your food away.
There is a smattering of curry caffs around the Strangeways area, but the beating heart is in and around the Northern Quarter. Here's a round-up of the best:
The traditional curry caff sprang up from a need to feed the hundreds of local garment industry workers who began arriving from the Indian sub-continent
This & That
Possibly the most well known of the curry caffs, it even recently caught the attention of Mail on Sunday food writer Tom Parker Bowles (though we did walk him there) and he loved it. This Manchester institution opened on Soap Street (ironically one of the scruffiest back alleys in the city) in 1984 and orderly lunchtime queues have been forming there ever since. It’s recently had a refurbishment, so gone are the red and yellow plastic seats which have been replaced by more modern wooden bench seating, a lick of paint and Haçienda stripes, naturally.
The makeover hasn’t affected the soul of the place, or the food, which tastes exactly the same as it did two or three decades ago. The daily menu is fixed to the wall, so you can decide what you fancy whist you’re still in the queue - all the curries are on display as this place is so busy, they don’t get chance to put the lids back on. Our favourites are the daily chicken curry, cabbage Tuesday and Sunday’s lamb nihari which has magical hangover reducing effects.
What we ate: Chicken curry, daal, lamb & spinach
How much? £5.50
This & That, 3 Soap St, M4 1EW
This prominent corner venue on Thomas Street has been a northern quarter fixture since 1992 thanks to its green and white paintwork and forest green seats. The curries are covered with lids, so you’ll usually have to ask to see what’s on that day. Out of all the curry caffs, we recommend this one for the best vegetarian curries, although you’ll still find lamb and chicken staples here. There’s a more interesting mix of veg in the vegetable curry here; cauliflower that’s not disintegrated, shards of vibrant red pepper, chunks of aubergine etc. It’s at the higher end of the price scale though, heading up to £6.80, but portions are decent. The grilled skewers seem to be a popular choice at Al Faisal.
What we ate: Chicken curry, minced lamb and peas, mixed vegetable curry, a chapati
How much? £7.00
Al Faisal, 58 Thomas Street, M4 1EG
A stone’s throw away from Al Faisal, tucked away at the top of an alleyway opposite the Tib Street Car park entrance is Kabana, whose rundown facade fronts an airy cafe with bright red seating and views of a spacious open kitchen. We feel a bit bad about publishing these images because they are about to undergo a refurbishment which they hope to have completed by the end of the month. Riz, the owner, proudly showed us plans, paint and tile samples on his phone, so for now just ignore the scaffolding and the broken sign as it’s all about to change. It’s a pretty friendly place with many regulars popping in for a chat with their chaat. They are also the venue for a monthly ‘curry and a chat’ meet up organised by arts group Quarantine. The curries here are packed with flavour and portions are generous.
What we ate: Chicken and spinach, lamb curry, mixed vegetable (including cauliflower and broad beans), a chapati
How much? £6.70
Kabana, 52 Back Turner St, M4 1FP
One of the original curry cafés, Yadgar was first situated on High Street, but moved to Thomas Street in 2003. It’s now faded red and yellow sign fronts a large cafe with views toward the kitchen at the back. This was the only curry caff we saw with a woman cooking in there, suggesting real family-style cooking. The curries here are good, full flavoured with the taste reaching all the way through the tender meat. The veg curry was not pretty but it was the tastiest mush we’ve eaten in a long while – more please.
What we ate: Chicken curry, lamb curry, mixed vegetable, a chapati
How much? £6.20
Yadgar, 71 Thomas St, Manchester M4 Tel: 0161 831 7753
This is a tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it café, sharing a dingy back alley with backstreet boozer Mother Mac’s, only a few metres away from Piccadilly Gardens. This tiny old place is cranking out some great curries, but its real strength is their fantastic bread which you can watch being rolled by hand and slapped on the side of their scorching hot tandoor. The tender lamb curry was more on the casserole side but as filling and delicious as you’d expect. They’re proud of what they serve here and even sprinkled a bit of fresh chopped coriander on the top before handing it over.
The naan bread was billowy and fluffy on top, yet golden, toasted and crunchy on the base. It was flecked with onion seeds to give it that unmistakeably characteristic flavour. At only 90p, we have sworn never to walk across town again without picking up a naan from Maharba for the journey.
What we ate: Chicken curry, lamb curry, mixed vegetable, the best naan bread in Manchester
How much? £5.90
Maharba, 36 Back Piccadilly, City Centre, Manchester M1 1HP